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I'm getting pretty close to wrapping up a campaign where the highest damage dealing character in the party was a Sharpshooting Fighter, who in combination with the Crossbow Expert feat, was regularly dealing upwards of 100 points of damage per turn in the levels 11-16 range, not including Action Surges.

For reference, the Sharpshooter feat, rules-as-written (Player's Handbook, pg. 170), is a feat that confers three benefits:

  • The character no longer takes Disadvantage when attacking from the "Long Range" of a ranged weapon
  • The character ignores the effects of half cover and three-fourths cover on targets they attack
  • The character may, before they make their attack roll, choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll, gaining a +10 bonus to the damage roll if the attack successfully hits

In the campaign in question, the fighter's high damage output wasn't a problem: the campaign was designed as a generally high-power-level game, and while his damage was easily eclipsing the rest of the party, the rest of the party all consisted of spellcasters whose versatility kept them from being irrelevant—and who, under the right circumstances, were plenty capable of bursting out large amounts of damage with a well placed spell.

But, in preparations for the next campaign, I am seriously considering making an adjustment to the feat to reduce its overall power level.

The modification/nerf I am making, in its totality, is that instead of being permitted to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll in exchange for gaining a +10 bonus to the damage, the modified version of the feat will allow a character to take a -5 penalty to their attack roll in exchange for gaining a +5 bonus to the damage. The other features of the feat would remain as-is.

My logic in making this change is that, in my experience, a single point of damage is usually still worth more, in terms of overall average damage output, than a single point modifier to the attack roll. My intention is not to ban the feat or make players feel bad for taking it, but rather to just dial back its power to make the moment-to-moment decision-making of whether to use it more important, and to make the macro-level "should I take this feat?" question less obvious.

So my question then is, what are the mathematical consequences of this change compared to the official version of the feat, and if this feat were offered at a table where you were planning to play a ranged/archery focused character, would this modified version of the feat still be worth taking or would the drop in power level make it too weak to justify taking this feat as part of your build?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The math for your question can be had by adjusting the calculations done does this question: Are features that allow −5 to attack to get +10 to damage mathematically sound? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22 at 2:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ Tangentially related: Is Gloom Stalker overpowered? \$\endgroup\$
    – goodguy5
    Feb 22 at 3:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ What level was the fighter? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ Would you consider adding a quick description of how the PC was getting more than 100 pts per turn, not counting action surges, at levels 11-16? Seems like a lot to attribute to SS. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Feb 22 at 11:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jack with 4 total attacks (3+1ba) in that level range it’s an average of 74 damage per turn without any other modifications, that’s 4x(1d6+15). If they’re a battlemaster that can become 88 with maneuvers, and adding a +3 hxbow makes it 100. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22 at 12:52

5 Answers 5

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For Sharpshooter, only two numeric variables matter: to hit and target armor class.

The formula for the probability an attack hits only has two variables:

$$P(hit)=\frac{21-AC+HIT}{20}$$

Where AC is the target's armor class and HIT is the character's bonus to hit with the attack. Now, the damage die size of the weapon used can change when taking the Sharpshooter penalty is worth it, but in the question we're talking about a Crossbow Expert, meaning hand crossbow, which has a d6, so die sized will be fixed at d6 for this analysis.

The question first examines an 11th to 16th level fighter, who gets three attacks per action plus one bonus action attack via Crossbow Expert. Notably, the number of attacks per turn doesn't not affect when to use Sharpshooter. An 11th level fighter can feasibly have +11 to hit with a hand crossbow (+5 DEX, +4 Prof, +2 Archery Fighting Style). Here's how the numbers shake out for this fighter:

enter image description here

SS (-5/+10) beats out taking the base attacks for ACs 22 and down, SS(-5/+5) beats out base attacks for ACs 18 and down. And even then, the damage boost from SS(-5/+5) is small, with the difference being only being about 3.5 damage at AC 15, about half the boost from SS(-5/+10) at that same AC. So in a Tier 3 campaign, we're looking at a pretty small boost for lower AC targets, with SS(-5/+5) being a net negative for AC 19 and up targets.

For a lower level fighter, SS(-5/+5) is even less generally useful. Taking a 5th level fighter with only +8 to hit (+3 DEX, +3 Prof, +2 Archery Fighting Style), the damage boost from SS(-5/+5) starts to become irrelevant much faster:

enter image description here

This time, SS(-5/+10) beats base attacks for ACs 19 and down, and SS(-5/+5) is only relevant for ACs 15 and down, and even then, it isn't much. Even at AC 10, SS(-5/+5) only yields around a +3 boost in damage per turn, with the bonus coming out to less than half a point at AC 15. On the other hand, at AC 15, SS(-5/+10) averages an additional 7 damage, and at AC 10, an additional 14 damage.

This takes Sharpshooter down a peg from "Must Take" to "Pretty Good".

Mathematically, your nerf makes the damage boost highly situational. Before, the damage boost was huge for lower AC targets, non-negligible for mid-AC targets, and a net negative only for very high AC targets. Now, it is really only good for picking off very low AC targets, which might be commonplace in a Tier 1 and Tier 2 campaign, but the boost fades from relevance as lower AC targets become increasingly rare.

That said, the other two bullets are still great features, especially for a Crossbow Expert. The vanilla hand crossbow has a measly 30 foot normal range, and Sharpshooter takes that out to 120. This feature alone makes the feat attractive for a Crossbow Expert. Together with ignoring 1/2 and 3/4 cover, and the situational damage boost makes your version of the feat still viable for Crossbow Experts, but not quite the "must have" the original version is.

To give a concise stamp on this one: probably balanced, ready for play testing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @GroodytheHobgoblin I didn't downvote your post, as I think it's more or less on the right track, nor did I upvote because I think it could benefit a lot from some number crunching, but I'm not sure why it was so poorly received relative to Nepene Nep's post, which has a similar lack of robust analysis. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ To give a proper analysis for lower levels I think comparing it to +2 DEX would be apropriate. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 22 at 20:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think it's a bit misleading to say only hit and AC matter, one of they key variables which you incorporate is damage. You also say attacks per turn doesn't matter then go on to use DPT instead of DPA in your analysis - reformatting your graphs to show the values you talk about would help. It could also be worth noting the distribution of AC, your graph goes up to 30 but it's fairly unlikely a level 16 fighter will face 30 AC, let alone a level 5. A more realistic spread might be 10-20 with a note that the most relevant comparisons tend to be around 15 AC. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 0:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov I think your intuition there is not quite right, run the numbers and see. If you increase damage the intersection point will move left, if you decrease damage the intersection point will move right. Think of it this way: as your damage approaches zero SS must become stronger (if you deal 0.1 damage then +10 is massive), as your damage approaches infinity SS must become weaker (if you deal a million damage then +10 is nothing). (1 - (AC - Hit - 1) / 20) * Damage = (1 - (AC + 5 - Hit - 1) / 20) * (Damage + 10) makes sense? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 1:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ You might find this answer interesting: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/76631/… You can see a comparison of how the intersection points move by ONLY changing the base damage. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 2:28
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I doubt SS was the problem here

If the fighter is dealing 100 damage per turn, only a portion of that is from sharpshooter. Best case if they are level 20 making 4 attacks per turn, and their hit bonus is equal to the enemy's AC, they get 40 of that 100 damage from sharpshooter.

Yes, it strong against weak enemies - eg a level 10 fighter with archery fighting style attacking a goblin would be hitting 75% of the time so would be dealing an extra ~3 damage. But killing lots of weak enemies is a niche.

However, as the enemy AC increases, the fighter's damage decreases. The feature becomes weaker and weaker.

A quick comparison:

  • Early game: A fighter with 5 average damage and +5 to hit vs a target with 15 AC: 2.5 damage on average, 4.5 damage with sharpshooter (equivalent to 2 damage bonus)
  • Mid game: A fighter with 10 average damage and +10 to hit vs a target with 15 AC: 8 damage on average, 11 damage on average using sharpshooter. (equivalent to 3 damage bonus)
  • End game: A fighter with 20 average damage, +15 to hit vs a target with 20 AC: 16 damage on average, 16.5 damage with sharpshooter (equivalent to .5 damage bonus)

I would recommend you do similar analysis using the fighter's character sheet. Calculate their damage with and without compared to several enemies that you would fight at that level. Every analysis I've seen comes to the same conclusion; "+10 is a big number, but in actual play the feat is situational" - it's notorious for being a trap for newbies.

The feat is good, but only when used in conjunction with boosting your to hit (eg adv from hiding).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The "archery" fighting style giving +2 to hit is one contributor to making Sharpshooter "more OP" / "more mandatory" (after maxing your Dex) than Great Weapon Master which allows the same tradeoff for melee attacks. (Are features that allow −5 to attack to get +10 to damage mathematically sound?) This blog article (dmdavid.com/tag/…) argues this point in more detail, also pointing out how strong ranged attacks are in general (especially for rogues), esp. ignoring cover \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 4:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do have to take issue with this answer, on the grounds that, based on some calculations I made, this fighter, when taking the Sharpshooter feat, can be expected to deal 133% damage compared to being without the feat. You can view the table I generated here, and I'm referencing the Level 16 AC20 Normal vs Sharpshooter numbers against each other. "Only a portion", in this context, is a 33% damage boost, and that seems pretty significant to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Xirema
    Feb 23 at 6:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Xirema Hard to reply without seeing your math, quickly in my head lvl 16 will have 5 (prof) + 5 (dex) + 2 (archery) to hit for 3.5 (crossbow) * 105% (crit) + 5 (dex) damage, correct? I'm seeing 1-(20-12-1)/20 = 65% chance to hit for 8.75 damage = 5.7 damage. Vs 1-(20+5-12-1)/20=40% chance to hit for 18.75 damage = 8 damage. Difference = 2.3 damage or +32%? I think this is basically best case scenario - low damage, low dice target. Eg if you changed to a heavy crossbow the damage is only 18% higher. Is it significant? ... cont \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 7:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Xirema You can only know that by comparing to other options. For example make a quick comparison to dex ASI: running the exact same numbers with +4 dex + SS vs +5 dex we get (as above) 5.6 damage with the ASI and 6 damage for SS -just 7% difference. So is the damage better than ASI? Yes, but dex doesn't just give DPA: it gives hit, AC, initiative, dex saves, stealth, etc. How about compared to other feats? Advantage by itself gives better damage than SS, so anything that works with that (lucky, skulker, mobile) probably are good, not to mention elven accuracy! \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 7:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Xirema I think you should also notice that something is very wrong here. Your numbers indicate 30 damage per turn, but the player was dealing 100. You are worrying about 2 extra damage from SS when your PC is dealing 70 more damage than you expect! Find out where the rest of that is coming from! \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 7:21
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Most of the time, no.

This question covered the maths of sharpshooter. The graph below assumes they do 10 damage base. You can shift the graph down 5 to see what happens if you reduce damage by five.

enter image description here

With -5 to damage this will be a hard nerf to the feat with a straight roll as it reduces the increase in damage the feat offers to 0 or below, and only increases damage up to a roll of 6 with advantage.

Unless most enemies need a roll of 1-6 to hit this nerf (e.g. +10 to hit and they have 16AC) your change will make the skill a net negative to damage when using a weapon with good damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this answer would be good but your explanation is a little difficult to read, seems like some of the joining words are missing \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 22 at 13:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the situation is a little more complex than this, yes you gain X amount from SS but how much do you lose from your hit chance lowering? For example if you are dealing 100 damage without SS, then going from 100% chance to hit to 75% chance would mean -25 damage on your attack, even if you gain 8 - a net loss of -13... \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 0:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ The graph assumes they do 10 damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nepene Nep
    Feb 23 at 0:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I think your conclusions are not correct (it’s a tricky subject for sure): the graph shows expected damage output after it has been corrected for hit probability. If you half the fixed bonus then it would half the contribution in the graph, not shift it down the full (unadjusted) five points. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 23 at 12:22
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This is still a good feat

TL;DR: the feat is OK for archers even without the -/+ clause. You can decide when to activate that clause. At -5/+5 its not worth to do so in many cases. It still can add damage sometimes, improving the feat slightly.

Mathematical perspective

Value of to hit chance: Decreasing your to hit by 1 decreases your chance to hit by 5% for a normal attack (unless you are at the fringes where only a critical can hit, or where you always hit, and unless advantage/disadvantage are involved). Your expected damage is the probablity to hit times the expected average damage you deal. If you deal less than 20 points of damage on average, then 1 point of to hit is worth less than one point of damage. If you consistently could deal more than 20 damage, then the point of to hit would be worth more.

Base Damage: How much damage does an attack normally deal? Let's assume a longbow with d8 variable damage, a Dexterity contribution of +3 to +5, and a magic weapon contribution of +0 (no such weapon) to +3. This will result in maybe 10 or so damage on a typical attack, a bit less early on, and still under 20 later on. There are of course lots of tricks that you can combine in your builds to deal more damage, but without the static +10 from Sharpshooter, it will be difficult to consistently achieve more than 20 points per attack. At average base damage 10, the value of a point of to hit is about 0.5 points.

Value of added damage: The effective value of +1 point to damage is less than 1, because that damage only gets added to attacks that hit, it is conditional. What is the value? That depends on the to hit chance worsened by activating the feat, and on the armor class of the enemy, which of course varies by enemy. The average to hit chance against level-matched opponents by CR from the Monster Manual is about 70%. It's a bit lower early on, higher at high levels, as the ACs do not grow as fast as the to hit increases. After deducting 5 points to hit, it is about 45%. Archers also can take Achery style for an extra +2 to hit, pushing this up 10%. At average chance to hit with the feat, the value of a point to damage is about 0.45 to 0.55 points.

So on average a point of damage is worth slightly less than a point to hit, and -5/+5 would be a small net loss to damage. Archers (as opposed to Great Weapon Masters) can take Archery style, for a small net gain. When you have optimized your build for higher base damage the loss of to hit is more painful.

Ranged attacks are still boosted

Not only are ranged attacks unrealistically good in D&D. In 5e, except for the disadvantage when shooting at someone right next to you (which you can partially negate by dropping your ranged weapon and as a free object interactions pulling out out an appropriate melee weapon), there is very little downside to them, if any. Maybe that it tends to be harder to find a magical bow than an enchanted sword, but that is really worldbuilding related.

With a ranged fighter and the massive range a longbow affords, you effectively have perfect mobility in most combat situations.

  • You can attack any opponent with no risk of being blocked
  • You are never unable to reach them because they fly or are on a high ledge
  • You run no risk of attacks of opportunity from movement to get into position
  • They have no ability to hit back unless they also have ranged weapons of some kind or manage to get close to you

One of the few downsides that remain is the cover that other creatures on the battlefield provide, such as your allies with heavy armor behind whom you can hide. So the ability to ignore cover and long range disadavantage alone is already solid enough to take the feat. In lots of fights this will produce a net improvement of +2 or better to hit.

Situational Benefit

There is a detailed analysis on the math of the feat. Since you are not forced to apply the -5/+5 shift, you can benefit from it by using it when you have high chances to hit such as when you have advantage and the enemy has low armor class, and avoiding it otherwise. You can use an estimate of their armor, and charts like the ones in the linked analysis to decide when to employ it. For example, if you fight a beast with AC 11, and you have a base +7 to hit and advantage, you would get about 3 points more per hit. In practical play, the swap will give you better results than what you would expect on average. Nobody is forcing you to use the swap, you control this.

Comparison to other feats

You can also compare the feat in its new form the the Spell Sniper feat, which (1) doubles the range on ranged spells. Your ranged weapons very likely already have a ranger much larger than even that, and taking away the disadvantage on long range is maybe comparable. (2) has ranged attacks ignore cover, like this does, and (3) gives you a damage cantrip. Assuming they are a wizard or sorcerer taking Spell Sniper, the cantrip is likely to be Eldritch Blast that deals 1d10 force damage instead of a damage type against which there are more resistances like with Fire Bolt. This is not increasing the damage all the time, just situationally. That seems pretty comparable to the -5/+5 version, and so overall that version seems in line with a comparable feat.

Conclusion

Will players still will want to use it? That will be based on the opinion and preference of each individual player. I would use it if I was playing an archer, and I think your adjustment is a good way to "fix" the feat, if you believe the original feat and sharpshooters are too strong.

Postscriptum: Chart and Usefulness by Tier of Play

This chart that shows the expected damage contribution for an expected base damage of 10, based on what you need to roll to hit with the -5/+5 modifier:

enter image description here

(The weird behavior on the edges is because a 1 always misses, a 20 always hits. If you only can hit on a natural 20, it never hurts to add the swap.)

You can see that with normal attacks, you'll need to hit on a roll of five for it to be worthwhile. Here's how that looks like against monsters from the Monster Manual:

  • In the beginner levels, you're looking at +2 proficiency bonus, +3 from stat, and very likely +2 from Archery style, for +7 total to hit. Using the swap will be beneficial against any monster with AC 12 or weaker. The average AC of monsters of CR 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2, which you will often fight there, is 12. (In this level range, your base damage is likely 8 points instead of 10, which would mean a 7 on the roll is worth it [chart not shown] and you can use the feat against anything up to AC 14. The average AC for monsters up to CR 4 is 13).

  • In mid levels, you are looking at +4 from proficiency, +5 from stat, +2 from Archery, and likely +1 from a magic weapon, total +12. Using the swap will be benefical against any moster with AC 17 or weaker. The average AC for monsters of CR 5-16 is 16.

  • In the highest levels, you are looking at +6 proficiency, +5 stat, +2 Archery, and likely at least +2 magic weapon, total +15. Using the swap wil be benefical against any monster with AC 20 or weaker. The average AC for monsters of CR 17 and up is 20. (Note however that in the base damage here is higher, about 12. This would make it only worthwhile to use the feat on a roll of 3 or better [chart not shown], for monsters of AC 18 or worse. So, Non-Human Person is right that the feat loses some effectiveness at the highest levels.)

For most of the levels where your typcial campaign plays out, using the swap of this version on average still will give you a minuscule benefit, and chosing it selectively should be a useful addition.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a really good analysis, and it's a shame it got so far downvoted. \$\endgroup\$
    – Xirema
    Feb 23 at 7:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is. Not sure why the downvotes either. It's a bit dense, maybe that's it. Maybe people just disagree. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Feb 23 at 11:15
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No, nerfing one of the most powerful feats in the game does not make it a bad feat.

That being said, Sharpshooter was made the way it was in the PHB along with Great Weapon Master as a way to bridge the (sometimes overwhelming) gap between martial and magic classes. Considering that your casters are doing similar amounts of damage naturally speaks volumes to the benefit of the feat. While your casters get to use their ASI to bump their stats or add other fun feats, your fighter almost HAS to take Sharpshooter in order to keep up. Same goes for Great Weapon Master, if you don't nerf it as well it feels like you're just targeting a specific type of player (ranged martial character). Now, the final thing I will say is that nerfing the feat makes it's use much more strategic. Early game they will have to decide if it's worth it to take the subtraction for only 5 extra damage, mid game will be the sweet spot as always, and late game will be almost obligatory since it is unlikely you'll miss. If the player in question is already doing upwards of 100 damage per round, then losing 15 of that likely won't make all the difference in the world.

The feat itself is worth taking without the damage part anyway, so yes, most players will still want to take it they'll just be upset at first dreaming of what could be :,(

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    \$\begingroup\$ So, not to be picky, but do you have anything to substantiate that "Sharpshooter was made the way it was" for the reasons you cite? A quote from the game designers, for instance? Otherwise the statement seems like speculation and opinion. The answer might be better if you take the implication of designer intent. \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Feb 22 at 11:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, I don't actually. That statement was less of an opinion and more of a personal conclusion made from context and general common sense reasoning. That being said, I don't have any designer approved quote, but no other reasons come to mind for making this feat other than making martials as fun as mages. Thank you for keeping me honest though! I'm not super familiar with the site yet though so feel free to edit it if you like (and have that capability). \$\endgroup\$
    – YoMama14
    Feb 28 at 8:09

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